Permanence & Change

The Rijksmuseum on Museum Square in Amsterdam South is considered the national museum of the Netherlands. It is the museum that is probably best known for having Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in its collection. The Night Watch underwent a conservation and restoration project that started in July 2019 and ran for two-and-a-half years. As the painting was executed in 1642, it was deemed necessary to provide restoration and because the people of the Netherlands want it to exist for several hundred more years, conservation work was required. As part of the undertaking the researchers and curators used a macro-XRF scanner to capture information millimeter by millimeter (the canvas measures 379.5 cm x 454.5 cm); it took 56 scans, each lasting 24 hours, to capture that information. In addition to which, some 12,500 high-resolution (0.001 mil) photographs were taken.

In June 2021 the museum announced:

Visitors to the Rijksmuseum can now enjoy The Night Watch in its original form, for the first time in 300 years. Several sections were cut from the painting in the past. The Operation Night Watch team has successfully recreated these missing pieces, which have now been mounted around Rembrandt’s world-famous work. This reconstruction based on the 17th-century copy attributed to Gerrit Lundens was made with the help of artificial intelligence.

The “Operation Night Watch” team noted that there were “a number of differences” between what viewers have seen over the past few hundred years and what has been reconstructed. There are three figures on a bridge that hadn’t been there. The painting’s main figures had been seen in the middle of the canvas when they were supposed to be right of center. And there are other changes.

The Giles Martin remix and expansion of The Beatles’ Revolver, like The Night Watch, deployed artificial intelligence. The album, released in 1966 (324 years after the Rembrandt), had been originally mixed to mono and two-channel stereo, but the multitrack master recordings were not saved. Martin made use of a technique known as “demixing” that had been notably used on Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary; it separates all of the instruments and vocals and applies machine learning to fill in information, information that we hear as sound.

Giles Martin told the BBC, for example, “It [the AI] has to learn what the sound of John Lennon’s guitar is. . .and the more information you can give it, the better it becomes.”

Which begs the question of whether he is referring to the capabilities of the machine learning or of the sound of John Lennon’s guitar.

Is a song that has undergone this AI-transformation the song as recorded, or is it fundamentally different? Does someone who spent years in the Rijksmuseum sitting in front of the pre-Operation Night Watch painting see the same painting now, as she had then?

As Revolver is only removed in time from now by 56 years and not 380, there is a lot of related material, such as John Lennon’s version of “Yellow Submarine,” which not only is acoustic but contains lyrics (“no one cared, no one cared”) which turns the jaunty Ringo version into something that is profoundly dark.

What does that do to our interpretation of that song? Once you hear Lennon, can you hear the released version the same?

We generally think of finished works of art, whether a painting or an album, as “finished.” Done. Complete. A thing with boundaries.

But clearly, this is not necessarily the case, and it will only become more the case going forward as digital tools are deployed on those things that seemed to be solid. Certainly, there has been restoration of paintings going on for hundreds of years.

Consider, for example, the Michelangelo fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which he executed between 1508 and 1512. It was “restored” in 1625, 1710-1713, 1935-1938, and, controversially, between 1980 and 1994. During this last restoration Andy Warhol, Christo, George Segal, Robert Rauschenberg, and others signed a petition that was sent to Pope John Paul II that requested that he put a stop to the work. There was a concern that through the restoration the work that had been done by the original artist would be damaged or changed.

Before and after images of the ceiling are absolutely shocking. The detail and the colors, which are said to be in keeping with what Michelangelo had originally done, detail and colors that had undergone the ravages of time (e.g., think about the amount of soot that is produced by candles over centuries), are, in effect, analogous to going from mono to stereo.

We don’t know what the original work was. But the ocular evidence of the photos taken of the ceiling before the work was undertaken and after indicates that there are highly perceptible changes.

It could be argued that utilizing AI and machine learning on paintings and music can bring them closer to the artists’ original intent. In the case of Beatles music, it is still possible to ask two of the members of the band as to whether that’s what they had in mind a half century ago.

But when they are gone, when there are other albums put to the remixing, will there be a group of musicians who say that there must be a stop put to the work. There would still be the original material that is (one assumes) not damaged by the transformations that take place unlike the situation with oil on canvas or oil on plaster.

Still, just what is the work that has undergone transformation? Isn’t it a different thing? When Revolver was recorded, the band and George Martin presumably made the best work they could given the state of technology then. They recognized the constraints and created what they could given them. To be sure, if there was some other technology available to them they would have likely done something different than what they originally released.

If Michelangelo had a 3D printer David might be different, too.

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Audio: The Beatles – “Yellow Submarine” (Songwriting Work Tape / Part 1)

From the Revolver Special Edition, 2022.

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